“That’s not right.”
This is the refrain that the main character returns to again and again in First Stage’s exceptional production of the musical “Matilda.” The impossibly precocious five year-old English girl, who lives in the kind of dystopian world that author Roald Dahl is famous for, knows injustice when she sees it. But instead of throwing a tantrum, she calls out the crimes around her calmly and confidently, always more concerned about the wrongs done to others than any of the tragically unfair circumstances that she, herself, has to endure: Parents who didn’t want her to begin with and barely tolerate her presence, let alone her intellect. A father who is so disappointed in her gender that he insists on calling her “boy.” A mother who berates her for reading books instead of watching the “telly,” and advocates improving her appearance instead of her mind. A sadistic school headmistress who calls her a “maggot” and tries to crush her, physically and emotionally, along with the rest of the students — and teachers — at Matilda’s new school.
On opening night of First Stage’s first full-length Broadway musical, the formidable Reese Bell played the slight and stoic brunette, Matilda. She is one of three area seventh graders who dons the English school uniform for the production, which runs through February 24 at the Marcus Center. (Taylor Arnstein and Marina Evans complete the trio.) Self assured and clear-eyed, with a lovely singing voice and a centered calm that imbues her character with strength, Bell is completely charming as the wholly original heroine. In this story of resilience and perseverance, character and education triumph over bluster, bullying and lies. Although Dahl wrote the book in 1988 and the musical debuted on Broadway in 2013, “Matilda” feels uniquely suited for this moment.
And if the tale of an unwanted girl believing in her own worth, discovering her (super) powers and insisting on writing her own story wasn’t already inspiring enough to get you to the theater, then consider the magnificent musical built up around her. Directed with energy and ingenuity by First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank, “Matilda” is a triumph for the company, which has never taken on a project this big and has rarely soared to these heights. It is the result of outstanding artistry on every level: a beautifully adapted script and dynamite score (by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin); a cast overflowing with talented actors, singers and dancers of all ages; ambitious choreography by the Milwaukee Ballet’s Jayne and Michael Pink; and clever, evocative designs that make Matilda’s world stunning and real.
Supporting a pitch perfect Bell in the title role, the cast of “Matilda” is raucous, ridiculous, gorgeous, tender and heartbreaking, all in turn. The outrageous fun begins with Matilda’s parents, the Wormwoods, played by Jackson Evans and Molly Rhode. In his bright green plaid suit and brilliant green hair to match, Evans is every inch an unscrupulous used car salesman and idiot dad who overlooks what he has in favor of the fortune he could swindle out of a group of Russian mobsters. With a great gift for physical comedy and goofy ad libs, he begins the second act on a high note with the song “All I Know,” an ode to dumbing oneself down by watching television. And his clowning around, while trying to remove a hat that has been mysteriously glued to his head, is a joy to watch. Right behind the dithering Mr. Wormwood is Milwaukee favorite Rhode in a sequin-covered, bleach blonde, screeching star turn as Matilda’s ballroom dance-obsessed mother. Brassy and brazen, she delivers the hilarious song “Loud,” with a hearty dose of hip wiggling and fancy footwork with her sexy young dance partner, the smooth, faux Italian Rodolpho (Teddy Warren).
The Wormwoods’ bombast is impressive, but it’s beautifully bested by two characters who love each other completely; the elegant acrobat (Allie Babich) and daring escapologist (Lyonel Reneau). They are the idyllic protagonists in a story that Matilda is writing to distract herself and her eager librarian friend Mrs. Phelps (Solana Ramirez-Garcia) from her home life. The stage pictures created by this pair of circus performers are exquisite and their nearly wordless ballet is heartbreaking, both as fact and fiction.
In a production full of scene-stealing performances, perhaps the most blatant is Kelly Doherty as the vile and manipulative Miss Trunchbull, a headmistress with a zeal for evoking fear and causing misery among her charges. Decked out in a brown tweed suit dress with oversized shoulders and a leather belt to accentuate Trunchbull’s athletic frame, Doherty savagely hurls insults (and a student or two) just as her character used to throw hammers for the English Olympic team. In a part that seems to be tailored to her vocal range, Doherty is imposing and fascinating to watch as she devises punishments, masters mindgames and most wonderfully of all, tries to remove a newt from her knickers.
The mousy and much abused teacher Miss Honey is the co-heroine of the show, with a journey that is almost as difficult as Matilda’s. Played tenderly by Elizabeth Telford, she alone recognizes Matilda’s gifts and learns to be brave by following the gifted girl’s example. Telford’s elegant soprano soars in several solos and leads the melancholy “When I Grow Up,” one of the most beautiful musical scenes in the show.
Supporting all these stand outs is a team of recent college grads, teen veterans from the First Stage’s Theater Academy and even younger performers who fill out Matilda’s classroom. Essential to the ensemble numbers “The Smell of Rebellion” and the show-stopping “Revolting Children,” they execute the Pinks’ challenging choreography with boundless energy and professional precision. (Special shout-out to Max Larson as Bruce, for his leave-it-all-on-the-stage solos of revolt on opening night.)
Set designer Brandon Kirkham’s over-sized alphabet blocks and towers of books are carefully arranged and rearranged to create a dozen different locations, while Jason Fassl’s lighting in magentas, purples and greens is just eerie enough to evoke the feeling of a parallel universe where something was “not quite right,” to paraphrase Matilda’s theme. And Arnold Bueso’s inventive costume design veered from the realistic to the absurd to the sublime, in a dizzying number of changes for the large cast.
With so much going right for this outstanding production, it was disappointing that the sound system in the Todd Wehr Theater seemed to betray both the performers and the band. Body mics were overpowered by some singers, and made others sound shrill. The uneven amplification also garbled words in songs packed with clever lyrics, making it hard to follow along, let alone enjoy some key points in the show. Hopefully adjustments can be made over the course of the run to correct this — for the sake of the performers and the audience.
Technical difficulties aside, “Matilda,” is a coup for First Stage and its steadfast heroine in a world turned upside down is exactly the story we need. That’s right.